I’m often asked what my favourite place in Japan is. It’s a question I can only answer with a very long list. I find it a strange question really, it makes me a bit uncomfortable that I can’t provide that single place that they are clearly expecting. Having said that I would recommend Nara to most people who ask me where to go while they’re in Japan. There are many reasons why I love Nara but here are my top ten.
Table of Contents
- 1. A fascinating history
- 2. Easy to access and convenient
- 3. Abundant Nature
- 4. Unique and fun local festivals
- 5. Perfect to explore on foot
- 6. A Slower Pace
- 7. The world’s largest bronze Buddha
- 8. Friendly locals
- 9. A celebration of the seasons
- 10. Architecture through the Ages
1. A fascinating history
It was the first permanent ancient capital of Japan over 1300 years ago, a time before Kyoto (Heian) and Tokyo (Edo) even existed. Many of the temples and places of interest have links back to that time so even if it’s just from a purely historical perspective it would be hard to say you’d experienced Japan without including at least a day here.
This is the entrance gate to Todai-ji temple, one of the seven great temples of Nara. It was founded in 752 on the order of Emperor Shomu, it’s hard for me not to be a bit overwhelmed by the history here.
2. Easy to access and convenient
In a practical sense, it’s an easy day trip from either Kyoto or Osaka. It’s located 30-40 km from either city and with the public transport system being what it is you can be there in around an hour leaving plenty of time to explore and eat your way around the city.
Trains run late into the evening so if you want to stay for dinner or an evening festival you shouldn’t have any problems getting back to your accommodation.
This is the JR Nara train station, the entry point to the city for most visitors but there is also a Kintetsu station not far away that may be more convenient for access from where you are staying.
3. Abundant Nature
Nara is really green and open. Surrounded by rolling hillsides and centred around Nara Park there are green spaces everywhere. While the size of parks and gardens in the major cities in Japan are impressive given the population and value of the land we do like to get a little further out and enjoy the open spaces. I have to admit as much as I love Tokyo and Osaka I’m not really a big city girl in my heart and need time away to recharge.
Tame deer regularly follow you around the parks and streets near the temples. Despite the warning signs saying they may kick, bite and exhibit other poor behaviours they have been particularly cute and mild-mannered during our visits. Possibly that’s because we don’t feed them, while it is allowed and vendors sell deer crackers for them there’s really no need as there are green spaces full of natural deer fodder all around.
Despite appearing to run from the deer these two were having a fabulous time patting and having quite the conversation with the local wildlife.
4. Unique and fun local festivals
Festivals are particularly special. During Setsubun on the 3rd of February, there were events happening all over town and the 3000 stone and bronze lanterns lit through the park and shrine were spectacular. The only other time you will see the lanterns all lit up during the year is at the Mantoro festival in August.
In January during the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival controlled fires burn on the hillside surrounding Nara and in March a 1200-year-old water drawing ceremony brings crowds to Todai-ji. If you can time your visit for a festival it definitely adds to the fun, the people of Nara love to celebrate.
5. Perfect to explore on foot
It’s flat and relatively compact, so you can easily spend the day walking around in Nara. There is a huge amount to see here in a small space, you definitely won’t see everything in a day trip but you can get a fair feel for the place.
Looking for some local insight
When time is limited one way to fit more into the day and get a local perspective on the culture and history is to join a walking tour. Magical Trip has a half-day walking tour of Nara that is done with a small group and local guide for an insight into the ancient capital.
The tour starts at 10 am which works well if you’re travelling from Kyoto or Osaka for the day. You’ll explore the most famous of the world heritage temples and shrines, meet the friendly deer in Nara Park and discover a hidden 8th-century pyramid. You’ll also enjoy lunch together that includes fresh locally grown produce.
6. A Slower Pace
It’s a city of some 400,000 people but the rolling hills and quiet narrow streets give the feeling of a much smaller town. If the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities have left you a little exhausted the slower pace of Nara is a great refresher. Slow down and wander, sip your tea slowly and savour the beautiful flavours of Nara.
There are plenty of places to eat and the food is as delicious as you’ll find all across Japan. While we had no problem finding reasonably priced options, Nara has remained a little more traditional. We did notice that some of the Western staples that you’ve become used to seeing on street corners across the country such as Starbucks aren’t in Nara. Not necessarily a bad thing as the local kissaten, traditional coffee and tea shops, really are something special.
7. The world’s largest bronze Buddha
It’s home to a 250 ton Buddha, the world’s largest bronze Buddha which is housed inside Todai-ji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building. While I have to admit my favourite Great Buddha in Japan is in Kamakura, there’s something special about it being outdoors with a backdrop of cherry trees, the site of this Daibutsu is truly impressive and not to be missed when you are in town.
8. Friendly locals
We’ve found the people from Nara really helpful and welcoming. From simple things like being offered help with directions to being invited to join a service in a local temple and being offered a celebratory sake and snacks at a Shrine when where we were possibly the only Westerners to stumble into the middle of a festival. We’ve also met and passed time with a group from Nara on a train trip to Nagahama. We ‘chatted’ in simple sentences and a bit of mime, they were headed on further for a hiking trip but they shared the history and key sites of the city we were visiting that day.
9. A celebration of the seasons
If it’s springtime Nara is a top spot for cherry blossom. The city itself was stunning enough but Nara is also the name of a prefecture that includes Yoshino, one of the top cherry blossom viewing sites in all of Japan. If you have time and you are there in April that would also be a great day trip option.
10. Architecture through the Ages
The architecture is stunning, there really are some beautiful shrines and temples here with many founded over 1000 years ago.
This is at Kofuku-ji, another of the seven great temples of Nara. It was established in 669 by Kagami-no-Ōkimi wife of Fujiwara no Kamtarito to pray for her husband’s recovery from illness and was moved to its current location in 710.
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If you were toying with the idea of a visit to Nara I hope our top 10 reasons to visit has helped you decide to go. If you’ve been to Nara already what did you like best about it?